Teaching Organizational Skills to Students

Here’s how to use student’s personal and organizational styles to teach them to be better organized…and maybe you’ll learn a bit about yourself, too!

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

A few years ago, I walked into a fourth-grade classroom to teach a lesson, only to find a teacher’s aide “helping” a student clean out her desk. Gleefully extracting papers, the aide proclaimed each discovery to the teacher—within earshot of the rest of the class. The look on the young lady’s face was heartbreaking.

She was mortified.

And so was I.

The aide’s intentions were good. She was genuinely excited to find those papers, which were probably overdue assignments. Still, it was clear from the expression on the child’s face that crawling under her desk was a more palatable option than getting credit for those assignments.

With permission from the young lady in question, I taught a different lesson that day. I introduced my fourth graders to the concept of organizing by style.

As you can imagine, kids are about as thrilled to learn about organization as they are to take a spelling test. Neither topic is inherently fascinating, and skill sets vary widely. While kids with strong spelling (or organizational) skills can’t wait to show off their knowledge, kids who aren’t naturally good spellers (or organizers) feel like failures before they even begin. This sense of capability—or the lack thereof—can even define them, with their self-esteem contributing to their overall sense of success or failure.

As educators, we know that one strategy doesn’t work for every child when it comes to learning those spelling words. Why, then, should we believe that one strategy—and a single set of tools—works for every child when it comes to getting organized? Well-intentioned teachers thrust pocket folders, binders, and pencil boxes at their students as though these particular tools hold the key to the kingdom of organization.

For many students, they do. But for some kids—some creative, intelligent, motivated, busy, talented kids—they don’t. These kids need to learn how to organize by tapping into their personal and organizational styles.

What’s the difference? Our personal styles guide the way we interact with our things, long before we even think about organizing them. Our organizational styles, on the other hand, are what I call our default settings—how we naturally organize our stuff.

See if you recognize any of your students in the descriptions below.

The Personal Styles

Kids with the “I need to see it” personal style rely on visual cues to remember things.

Telltale sign: Piles instead of lists.

Fear: If I put it away, I’ll forget it.

Organizational conundrum: Finding the sweet spot between visual reminders and visual clutter.

This style often manifests more at home than at school, since privileges like recess are contingent upon things being put away. But putting things away is very difficult for these kids, because they fear that out of sight is out of mind.

Key to success: Organizational systems that are visually based. Labels and color-coding can help them transition from piles to plans; containers that are clear, unique, or open (no lids) provide the visual cues they need, making them less anxious about putting things away.

Kids with the “I love stuff” personal style place great value on simple objects.

Telltale sign: Treasures and collections.

Fear: Getting rid of things.

Organizational conundrum: Too much stuff, not enough space.

“I love stuff” kiddos are collectors. They bring in rocks from the playground and special items from home, and they live for school store days when they can get a new eraser to add to their collection. Sometimes, they love the collections themselves; other times, they’ve made an emotional connection to a particular item.

Key to success: Everything in moderation. Allowing a few special items to creep into the desk (as long as these don’t become a distraction) often keeps these children happy. When it comes time to winnow the collection, these kids are much better at giving things to someone else who will love them than they are at throwing them away.

Kids with the “I love to be busy” personal style have many interests.

Telltale sign: Multiple activities.

Fear: Boredom.

Organizational conundrum: Not enough time to keep clutter under control.

These are the kids who have no problem achieving “well-rounded” status, but who might have trouble with the fact that each day has only 24 hours. Some busy kids are deeply engrossed in one pursuit; others have never met an extracurricular activity they didn’t like.

Key to success: Keeping it simple and keeping it separate. Assigning separate folders or containers to each activity allows them to keep like items together. Using compartmentalized containers can work well, too; that way, when time is short, they can see at a glance what’s missing.

The Organizational Styles

Kids with a “drop and run” organizational style put things down, not away.

Telltale sign: A trail of belongings.

Benefit: Retraced steps often lead to finding the item in question.

Liability: The missing item could be anywhere.

“Drop and run” kids need to make it as easy to put things away as it is to put them down. Open containers and other one-step storage solutions work best. That three-ring binder? Try an accordion folder instead.

Kids with a “cram and jam” organizational style are stuffers.

Telltale sign: Overstuffed desks and lockers.

Benefit: It’s all in there. Somewhere.

Liability: It could be crushed, smashed, wrinkled, or broken.

“Cram and jammers” need containers with room to grow. Ditch containers with lids and folders with pockets, and replace them with open containers and file folders that are just one big open space. After all, when was the last time you saw a “cram and jammer” actually put something in the pocket of that pocket folder?

Kids with an “I know I put it somewhere” organizational style put things in safe places.

Telltale sign: Clear surfaces.

Benefit: Looks very organized.

Liability: They can’t remember which safe place they put it in.

“I know I put it somewhere” kids need to learn to put things away intentionally and to establish consistent homes for their things. Clear containers help, too; kids can put things away, but still see which safe place they put them in.

Solutions and Organizing by Style

Want to take your students from where they are to organizing by style?

Here’s how.

Identify the styles.

When you first talk to your class about styles, many students will identify with all of them. Over time, however, most kids are able to select two predominant styles: one personal and one organizational.

Embrace the styles.

Working against style is counterproductive. Often, it is how kids got into this pickle in the first place. Embracing the styles not only allows students to improve their organizational skills but also helps them to develop confidence.

Choose the right tools.

Most students who struggle with organization are more successful when they have places besides the dark inside of a desk where they can store things. Bins, baskets, clear containers, and one-step storage systems keep things tidy yet visible. Finding the right tools often requires some experimenting and at least one trip to the dollar store.

Create homes.

Putting the same thing in the same place every time helps establish habits. When kids choose homes that match their styles, things are more likely to end up where they belong. You can reinforce this concept when giving directions by instructing students to put papers in their homes rather than simply telling them to put them away.

Build on successes.

Getting organized is a process, and a personal one at that. Sometimes, kids identify their styles, and everything clicks. Other times involve trial and error. Try to be patient. Keep in mind that when the owner of the stuff establishes the system, it is less likely to fall apart. In addition, one success often leads to another, as students learn to match the way they organize with the way they think.

Perhaps you are wondering what happened to my friend—the one shrinking in her seat as the aide uncovered buried treasure in her desk. That fourth grader is now a high school graduate, bound for college this fall.

Still, no matter how grown up she gets, I’ll always remember her expression at the end of that fourth-grade lesson. No longer shrinking from embarrassment, she was instead grinning broadly, happily defining herself as “cram and jam.”

Secure in the knowledge that she wasn’t alone, she was on her way to developing both a sense of humor about her skills and an organizational system that fit them.

When students develop systems that make sense to them, they are more likely to stay organized. They also develop a sense of confidence as they find new tools to replace the standard-issue binders and pocket folders that have failed them repeatedly.

By encouraging our students to organize using their personal and organizational styles, we also encourage them to embrace their uniqueness and be true to themselves—a lesson well worth teaching.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary school counselor.